Colleges need socioeconomic diversity

Colleges need socioeconomic diversity (credit: Joanne Lo/) Colleges need socioeconomic diversity (credit: Joanne Lo/)
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Diversity is something of a buzzword in college admissions, yet it is one of the most misrepresented elements of a school’s identity. Colleges are right to focus on diversification, but I believe they ignore the socioeconomic homogeneity of their student bodies.

Elite universities make an effort to be diverse, and by many measures, Carnegie Mellon has succeeded. All 50 states and several dozen countries are represented in the student body, and data from the Carnegie Mellon Diversity Resource Guide shows that undergraduate enrollment by nonwhite and international students has outnumbered white student enrollment every year since 2002. There are still more male than female students, but that gap is closing steadily.

As a white girl from the Midwest, I am neither geographically nor racially underrepresented here. However, students from high schools like mine are few and far between at top-tier universities like Carnegie Mellon. I attended an urban public high school where 86 percent of students from the district are legally “economically disadvantaged.” According to a pamphlet published by my school district, one-fourth of the students do not graduate high school in four years.

I am proud of my high school. Our attendance rates are above 95 percent and our test scores consistently exceed state averages. Not everyone attends college, but I wish that decision was made on a personal basis rather than a socioeconomic one. Among those who do attend college, scholarships for “homegrown” students at local universities incentivize students to enroll at in-state public institutions. I believe many more students from my high school and schools like it could attend elite universities if given the resources, information, and financial guidance.

Financial aid documents like the FAFSA and CSS Profile are tricky to navigate, especially for nontraditional families. According to the guidelines for 2013-14, any noncustodial parent must submit supplemental paperwork. Since estranged parents are considered noncustodial except in extraordinary circumstances, the onus of tracking down these family members falls to the student. A deceased parent also complicates a student’s assets. Given the stresses that accompany these issues of documentation, students with unusual family and financial situations face a more arduous process than those from typical two-parent households. This flaw could be construed as systematic discrimination, though I believe it is more likely an accident of the system.

Carnegie Mellon’s ridiculous costs are no secret. The tuition and fees of over $60,000 put a strain on middle class budgets and are absolutely impossible for worse-off families. Financial aid makes it possible for students from less-than-elite socioeconomic backgrounds to attend elite universities. But what does it say about our student body that only 53 percent of students received aid last year?

According to, this percentage is on par with Ivy League financial aid. Still, the idea that 47 percent of our student body can afford the full price of tuition seems absurd. We all worked hard to get here, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to diverse personal histories. Certain life experiences for students from middle-to-upper class families tend to be similar, whether they come from the Bay Area in California or the suburbs of Boston.

A caveat: this is not to say that economically-disadvantaged students are victims of society. Countless students have overcome adversity in their personal lives in the course of their educational journeys. The argument for greater socioeconomic diversity at elite universities is not meant to be patronizing, but rather hopes to transform popular perceptions of who is disadvantaged.

Race remains linked to socioeconomic status in the United States, but the latter gives a much fuller representation of a student’s background. When we consider race alone, the rich members of any minority — in comparison to the poor members — are overrepresented virtually everywhere.

This is, perhaps, most visible in primary and secondary education, where public schools are funded by property taxes. This means that lower-income neighborhoods usually have lower-quality schools and produce a smaller proportion of students who go on to higher education. Meanwhile, public schools in rich areas and private schools are better funded, overrepresent rich white students, and tend to send more students to top-tier universities. There exists a cycle of economic disparity linked to education. Every high school has smart, driven, hardworking students, so universities shouldn’t limit the selection of their student body to primarily well-off high schools.

Colleges should promote diversity that is broader than race or geography. Policies like affirmative action promote racial diversity, but may disregard other elements of identity. Incorporating socioeconomic data into college admissions may solve part of the problem, as long as the process is transparent.

Admissions decisions need to be made in the context of a student’s life, instead of through predominantly quantitative analysis. When grades, test scores, extracurriculars, and essays of two students are considered equally strong, the context of the students’ achievements — whether a personal struggle, family situation, or educational obstacle — must become the deciding factor for admission. Consider a prep school with supplemental instruction on standardized testing, and contrast it with an urban, inner-city public school with a 30:1 student-faculty ratio, or a home-schooled student from the rural Great Plains. An SAT score of 2100 should be evaluated differently in each case, and reflect differently on the student in question.

Some colleges already have admissions policies which consider personal history, but there is still much to be done. Beyond discussing the issue with Carnegie Mellon’s administration, we can promote top-tier universities in economically challenged school districts. Many students in these districts have only ever heard of long-shot Ivy League schools, or else believe they cannot afford them. Students should be encouraged to consider all of their options. For instance, we could make it better known that private universities offer more need-based aid, while public universities offer more merit-based aid. Informing students of these intricacies — and emphasizing the possibilities for financial aid — would broaden the applicant pools at elite universities.

Although socioeconomic diversity is narrowly represented at schools like Carnegie Mellon, there is hope. A holistic approach to admissions would include racial, geographic, and cultural diversity — all of which would inherently follow socioeconomic integration.